Removing Statues: Reckoning With Confederate And Other US Monuments

The removal of statues in the US is a topic of ferocious debate. Learn about these controversial statues and which have been removed so far.

Jul 5, 2020By Robert C. L. Holmes, MA Ancient & Medieval History, BA Archaeology
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Robert E. Lee Monument before (left) and after (right) the recent protests. Plans have been announced to remove the statue as soon as possible, Antonin Mercie 1890 Richmond Virginia, via WAMU 88.5 American University Radio and Channel 8 ABC News WRIC


The controversy surrounding the removal of statues in the United States is a highly charged, emotional issue for many people. This article seeks to explain the debate and controversy regarding this issue without taking a political stance. Those seeking a political opinion piece should look elsewhere. The main focus of this article will be on the controversy as it stands in 2020; although it should be noted that this controversy and the many debates surrounding the removal of statues stretches back many years. While Confederate statues make up the majority of those that have been removed, other statues have been targeted as well. As of the moment, one hundred and thirty-four statues in the United States have been toppled, removed, or plans to remove them in the future have been announced.


Removing Statues: This Controversy In Brief

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The Pioneer Mother before (left) and after (right) it was toppled by protestors on June 13, by Alexander Phimister Proctor, 1932, University of Oregon Campus, Eugene Oregon, via NPR


The United States of America has historically had a very ethnically, racially, religiously, socially, culturally, and politically diverse population. Yet despite its ideals and laws as they have been traditionally been expressed or presented, various segments of the population have long faced various forms of discrimination. As a result of this, many from these historically marginalized groups view certain statues as symbols of their oppression. They claim that these statues are intended to intimidate them and demonstrate that they are not part of American society. Therefore, they argue that the removal of statues such as these is a necessary step towards righting historical wrongs.


Others view these statues as celebrating or commemorating their ancestors and those who have contributed to civic life, American culture, or played an important role in the local history of a particular region. The statues are a part of their heritage and identity locally, regionally, and even nationally. They are something to admire and take pride in, while also being a part of the historic landscape of the community. In some cases, the descendants of those depicted still live in the region or even the local community, so that they perceive the statues as honoring their heroic ancestors.  They, therefore, argue that the removal of statues is nothing but an attempt to erase history.


The Removal Of Statues In The United States

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Statue of Jefferson Davis before (left) and after (right) its removal from the Kentucky State Capitol rotunda on June 13, by Frederick Hibbard, 1936, Frankfort, Kentucky, via ABC 8 WCHS Eyewitness News and The Guardian 


In response to this controversy a number of statues across the United States of America have been removed; some by local governments, others by private groups or protestors. The statues affected by this controversy have generally been those that were set up in public spaces. Depending on where, when, and who set them up they are owned by the Federal (National) government, State (Regional) governments, municipalities, religious organizations, colleges or universities, or large corporate entities such as professional sports teams. The fact that these statues are owned by so many different groups creates a variety of difficult legal problems for those trying to decide what to do with them. In some instances, they are protected by Federal, State, or Municipal laws which have been interpreted as prohibiting the removal of statues in certain cases.

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Therefore, on a number of occasions, private citizens have taken matters into their own hands when they felt that government entities or other organizations have been either unable or unwilling to act. This has resulted in numerous scenes of statues being pulled down by groups of citizens across the United States. Such actions have usually been accompanied by further acts of vandalism or destruction directed at the statues or the pedestals on which they stood, or in some instances still stand on. Of course, not every statue that has been removed as a result of this controversy was removed by protestors in this way.  In many instances, State and local governments or other organizations have opted to remove the statues themselves. The removal of statues carried out in this manner has resulted in statues being relocated to what are considered more appropriate settings, placed in storage, or moved to museums. 


Statues Of Christopher Columbus

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Two Statues of Christopher Columbus: Newark, New Jersey, by Giuseppe Ciocchetti, 1927 (left), and  Boston, Massachusetts, commissioned by Arthur Stivaletta 1979 (right), via WordPress: Guy Sterling and The Sun


In 1492, as the story goes, Christopher Columbus led an expedition across the Atlantic Ocean at the behest of the king and queen of Spain.  Though he never set foot in the continental territory of the United States of America, his four voyages took him throughout the Caribbean islands, including the US territories of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, and to the shores of South and Central America. Long considered a national hero by many nations throughout the Americas, Columbus’ treatment of the indigenous peoples of Hispaniola and the actions of those who came after him have led to a reassessment of his status. As a result, he is now portrayed and interpreted as a brutal colonizer who committed acts of genocide. The removal of statues honoring Columbus recognizes the centuries of oppression suffered by indigenous peoples at the hands of Europeans.


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Removal of the Christopher Columbus Statue in Newark, New Jersey on June 25 for fear that people would be injured attempting to topple it (left), and the removal of the Christopher Columbus Statue in Boston Massachusetts on June 11 after it was decapitated by protestors (right), via and 7 News Boston


However, there are those who push back against this narrative and consider Christopher Columbus a spiritual founder of the United States of America. Amongst Italian-Americans, he is an important cultural figure and a key part of their identity as Americans. Many statues of Christopher Columbus were erected in the late 19th and early 20th century, a time when Italian immigrants in the United States faced severe discrimination, to call attention to the contributions of Italians to American history and culture. It is also argued that the crimes of which Columbus has been accused were exaggerated by his enemies and those who were highly motivated to slander his reputation. As such, the removal of statues honoring Columbus denies his important contributions to American history and the experience of the Italian American community.


To date, twenty statues of Christopher Columbus have been toppled or removed and six others have been ordered removed with no official date yet set for their removal.


Statues Of Explorers, Colonizers, And Missionaries 

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Statue of Junipero Serra, Los Angeles, California by Etorre Cadorin, 1930 (left), and Statue of Juan de Oñate, Albuquerque, New Mexico by Reynaldo Rivera, 1994, via Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation  and Albuquerque Journal


When Europeans first arrived in the Americas, it was to them a vast unknown and unexplored land full of vast and unclaimed resources. This was, of course, incorrect as millions of indigenous peoples had been living on these lands for millennia. The processes of exploration, colonization, and evangelization which followed led to the deaths of many indigenous peoples and the destruction or suppression of their cultures. These acts are interpreted as genocides or ethnic cleansings, which were carried out with severe cruelty and brutality. As such, the individuals who perpetrated these acts are not heroes, but villains, and do not deserve to be honored with statues in public spaces. The removal of statues honoring these groups or individuals is a necessary step towards recognizing these historic wrongs.


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Statue of Junipero Serra toppled by protestors on June 20, Los Angeles, California (left), and the Statue of Juan de Oñate removed on June 16 after a protestor was shot, Albuquerque, New Mexico (right), via Los Angeles Times and Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette


However, many cities and regions of the United States of America as they currently exist owe their very existence to these individuals; who are seen as founders. Missionaries such as Father Junipero Serra, the Apostle of California, have been canonized for their evangelical efforts. There are many who still worship at churches established by the missionaries who they revere for spreading the word of God. Others admire what they see as the bravery and determination of the explorers and colonizers who crossed great distances into the unknown, overcame great odds in conflicts with the indigenous peoples, and endured extreme deprivations. Therefore, the removal of statues such as these is not only an erasure of history but in some instances an act of religious persecution.    


To date, ten statues of European Explorers, Colonizers, and Missionaries have been taken down or removed.


Statues Of The Confederate States Of America

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Statue of Albert Pike, Washington DC by Gaetano Trentanove 1901 (left) and Statue of Appomattox, Alexandria, Virginia by Caspar Buberi 1889 (right)


The largest number of statues removed in the United States of America in 2020 have been those associated with the Confederate States of America. From 1861-1865 the United States of America was split asunder in a conflict known today as the American Civil War. Following the election of Abraham Lincoln as president of the United States in 1860, the Southern states attempted to secede and form their own independent nation; commonly known as the Confederacy. Their motivation was to protect the institutions of chattel slavery, the enslavement of African Americans, which the perceived to be threatened by Lincoln. Though the Confederacy was ultimately defeated, in later years thousands of monuments and memorials were later erected across the United States which commemorated and celebrated former Confederates. The individuals, groups, and ideas commemorated by these statues are therefore seen as treasonous and racist, and therefore, the removal of statues honoring them is justified.


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Statue of Albert Pike toppled and set on fire by protestors on June 19 (left), and  Statue of Appomattox removed by its owners following protests on May 31 (right), via NBC 4 Washington and Washingtonian


Many of those who live in the former territory of the Confederacy, view the Confederates as brave rebels who sought to defend their rights and property against a tyrannical Federal government. They are proud of their ancestors, who they believe made a principled stand. The Confederacy and the statues which commemorate its leaders, generals, and soldiers are therefore important parts of their identity and history. It is something that sets them apart from other areas of the United States, as only eleven of the now fifty states were part of the Confederacy. As such, the Confederacy is an important part of their history and cultural heritage deserving of recognition, preservation, and commemoration. The removal of statues commemorating the Confederacy and former Confederates is an erasure of history and the destruction of unique cultural and social symbols.


To date, forty-seven statues related to Confederates and the Confederacy have been taken down or removed and twenty-one others have been ordered to be removed as soon as possible.


The Removal Of Statues From Other Periods

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Statue of Frank Rizzo, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by Zenos Frudakis, 1998 (left), and Equestrian Statue of Caesar Rodney, Wilmington, Delaware, by James E. Kelly, 1923 (right), via The Philadelphia Inquirer


There are also a number of other statues that have been removed that do not easily fit into any of the categories previously described. Some were slave owners who lived prior to the American Civil War; it should be remembered that slavery has a long history in the Americas. Others depict individuals associated with settling the “American Frontier,” after the Age of Exploration or depict the “Pioneering Spirit” of this period, which also led to the death and displacement of thousands of indigenous peoples. Still, others depict politicians, business owners, or members of various law enforcement agencies seen as racist or sexist.


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Removal of the statue of Frank Rizzo on June 3 following protests over his policies as mayor of Philadelphia (left), and the removal of the Equestrian Statue of Caesar Rodney on June 12 over fears that it would be targeted by protestors since Rodney was an enslaver (right), via FOX 29 Philadelphia and Delaware Online


The general argument against the removal of statues, in this case, is that the individuals, groups, or ideas that they represent contributed in some meaningful way to their community. These contributions should override other considerations due to their significance. In many cases, it is also argued that the subjects depicted by these statues should not be judged by modern standards, but rather by the standards of their period. Many of the actions that are today condemned were, at the time, considered to be acceptable. 


To date, twenty-six such statues have been taken down, removed, or placed in protective storage, while plans have been put in place for the removal of four others.


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By Robert C. L. HolmesMA Ancient & Medieval History, BA ArchaeologyRobert Holmes has an MA in Ancient & Medieval History and a BA in Archaeology. He is an independent historian and author, who specializes in the Military History of the Ancient and Medieval World and has published over a dozen articles on related topics. Originally from Massachusetts, he now lives in Florida where he works doing public history leading tours, giving lectures, and educating people about the local history.